Friday, February 08, 2008

On Reading Handwriting

Over in Slate, author Megan Marshall (The Peabody Sisters) has an essay entitled "The Impossible Art of Deciphering Manuscripts." Megan is a longtime MHS researcher and friend, and the column includes several images from the Society's collections, comments from other frequent visitors, and background about several ongoing editorial projects here at the library (including the Adams Family Papers, Winthrop Family Papers and the Caroline Healey Dall diaries).

Marshall's inspiration for the piece is the ongoing kerfluffle over the Notebooks of Robert Frost (mentioned here), which highlights the arduous task of modern documentary editors (more on which later this weekend in another post). Marshall writes "Current editorial standards require print versions of authors' journals to reproduce as faithfully as possible every stroke of the pen, every cross-out or insertion, even sometimes the look of the handwritten page, with ragged margins and random gaps. For dead writers, diary pages are the best evidence scholars have of the ways their minds worked—their first thoughts on a poem or story, their innermost ambitions and fears as human beings. No one wants to get that wrong."

The article covers some of the most tricky aspects of reading historical handwriting, from John Winthrop's with its unfamiliar style, abbreviations and word usage to the eye-straining practice of "cross-writing" (which is tricky even when the author had readable handwriting).

Marshall mentions one of my favorite discussions of bad handwriting: In May 1858, William Lloyd Garrison writes to Theodore Parker regarding a manuscript Parker had submitted for publication in The Liberator:

"I was so interrupted by company to a late hour last night, that I have found it impossible to look over your manuscript, though I tried to do my best. You say that it is written so plain that he who runs may read it 'if he can.' I can say, on an examination of it, that its chirography is such as to furnish a very strong inducement for any man to run, who attempts to read it!

However, I trust that, by the aid of your good wife, Miss Stephenson, Wendell Phillips, Samuel May Jr., Robert H. Wallcutt, Winchell Garrison, and a few others, we shall be able to decipher it, so as to print it in the Liberator without any serious blunders."

Garrison signs his note "Your puzzled friend."

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